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Preview: Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs

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Can the Vols take down the nation’s top team?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Kentucky
Tennessee’s rushing attack will be needed in a big way on Saturday.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers (5-4, 3-3) are coming off a huge win over the Kentucky Wildcats after back-to-back losses, but now have the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs (9-0, 7-0) coming to town.

The Vols are (-20.5) underdogs, but don’t tell them that. There’s a strong sense of confidence surrounding this team and that should show up on the field Saturday.

Whether or not it means that the Vols pull off the upset remains to be seen, but either way, there’s plenty to dive into when it comes to this week’s preview.

Overview

  • All-time series: Georgia leads the all-time series, 25-23-2.
  • Largest margin of victory: The Vols destroyed the Bulldogs, 46-0, in 1936.
  • Longest win streak: Tennessee won nine in a row from 1989-1999, but Georgia has won the last four games in a row.
  • 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 21st-ranked offense (57th passing, 18th rushing) and the 95th-ranked defense (109th passing, 68th rushing). They average 38.2 points per game (15th) and have allowed an average of 28.2 points per game (80th). The Bulldogs are 44th in total offense (59th passing, 43rd rushing) and are second in total defense (2nd passing, 2nd rushing). They average 38.4 points per game (14th) on offense and have allowed an average of 6.6 points per game (1st).
NCAA Football: Missouri at Georgia
Kirby Smart has the Bulldogs rolling in 2021.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • Tennessee’s offense vs. Georgia’s defense: This is vanilla on the surface, but if you’ve watched these two teams play at all this year, you’ll get it. We’re talking about one of the SEC’s/NCAA’s best offenses going up against probably the best defense of the 21st century. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.
  • Red zone execution: Georgia has allowed opponents to enter the red zone just 16 times on the year and they’ve allowed just four touchdowns over that span. Tennessee has 25 touchdowns on 36 red zone trips, which is a pretty decent clip at 70%, but that needs to be higher this weekend. The Vols cannot afford to kick field goals from inside the 20 or come away with zero points when they are in that area of the field.
  • Hendon Hooker’s protection: Tennessee allowed five sacks last week against Kentucky and now they’re facing this likely-legendary Georgia front seven. You don’t think the Bulldog’s mouths are watering when it comes to this matchup? The offensive line will be absolutely crucial this week and the front five must be on its game or else it’s going to be a long, long day for the offense and the Vols, in general.
  • Stopping Georgia’s explosive plays on offense: Everyone mentions the defense first when talking about the Bulldogs, and with good reason. But this offense can take chunks out of the field when needed. The Dawgs have six touchdown passes of 38+ yards and and 86 plays that would be considered explosive on the season. Tennessee is going to have its hands full with the Georgia defense. It doesn’t need to compound the situation by letting the offense get rolling.
  • Penalties: The Vols were flagged 10, 6, and 12 times in each of their three SEC losses. That can’t happen this week if they want to stay in this game. Granted, it’s going to be tough, considering how athletic Georgia is and how fast they play. Especially on defense. But there’s no reason to think Tennessee can’t stay in this game if it can keep it clean.

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Hendon Hooker: This is easily the toughest defense Hooker will face all year long. He’s been a stud this year and it will be intriguing to see how he handles the Bulldogs.
  • RB Jabari Small: Tiyon Evans is the better back, but he simply can’t stay healthy. Small should see the bulk of carries over these last three games, but will have a tough challenge this week.
  • WR Cedric Tillman: He’s found his groove over the last four weeks with 6+ catches in the last four games and a touchdown in reception in the last three games.
  • DE Tyler Baron: You need your best players to show up in big games and Baron is one of the best players on the Tennessee defense.
  • CB Alontae Taylor: His pick-six against Kentucky is one of the Vols’ biggest plays of the year. He needs to do more of that this week, for sure.
  • DB Theo Jackson: See Tyler Baron. But in all seriousness, Jackson can make plays all over the field and that versatility will come in handy against the Georgia offense.

Georgia Bulldogs

  • QB Stetson Bennett IV: Bennett’s numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but he’s an efficient thrower who rarely makes mistakes.
  • RB Zamir White: Georgia, like usual, uses multiple backs, but White is definitely the lead guy. He has the fourth-most rushing touchdowns among all running backs and the sixth-best yards per carry average among backs with at least 100 carries in the SEC.
  • TE Brock Bowers: It’s a tad unusual to see a freshman tight end lead the country’s best team in receiving, but this passing offense flows through Bowers.
  • DL Travon Walker: The Bulldogs have 15 different players with at least 0.5 sacks on the year, but Walker has the most among his defensive linemen counterparts.
  • LB Nakobe Dean: The dude does nothing but fill the stat sheet with game-changing plays. He leads the team in interceptions, is second in sacks, and is fourth in both tackles for loss and total tackles.
  • DB Christopher Smith: He appears to be healthy, which is huge news for a Bulldog defense that will need to contain this Volunteer passing attack.
NCAA Football: Tennessee at Kentucky
How much success will Josh Heupel have on Saturday?
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Game Outlook

This is such a strange spot to be in compared to the last couple of years. Like, it’s not crazy to sit here and say that there’s a strong chance UT loses this game, yet remain excited to see how everything plays out.

That certainly hasn’t been the case over the last couple of years. It’s been more of a “Hey, let’s just not get really embarrassed, OK?” type of deal. The fact that this feeling currently resides in Vol Nation is just another piece of evidence that points toward the job that Josh Heupel has done in Year One.

Tennessee isn’t going to win this game unless everything goes right something monumental occurs that is in their favor. The Vols are simply outmatched at the end of the day. The pass protection and the pass rush — two areas you must excel in to beat the SEC’s best — just aren’t there right now and that will be the key to this game.

But that doesn’t mean they’re just going to lie down and let the Dawgs walk all over them. Expect a fun, tough game that continues to give hope for the future.